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Autumn classic: the other bass

Ever since I wrestled my first double-header of 3-pound black sea bass off a jagged piece of rocky ledge well south and east of Newport, R.I., I’ve marveled at the relative lack of interest in the directed sea bass fishery.

Zach Harvey

A lone 3-pounder can hold its vertical ground with a will seldom found in a fish of that size. A pair of 5- or even 6-pound slammers often will have you betting on a surprise 25-pound cod or substantial striped bass. Folks have caught some big ones while drifting for fluke, especially earlier in the 2012 season, when I got many confirmed reports of specimens scaling a legitimate 6 and, on several occasions, 7 pounds.

The charter guys, after filling striped-bass limits (or determining that the species will not cooperate on a given tide), will frequently head for some boulder-strewn bottom and soak squid on two-hook rigs in the interest of sending clients home with some choice fillets. So it’s not a lack of awareness of the lowly sea biscuit that limits participation in a directed fishery. Over more than a decade — from roughly 2000 to 2011 — of contributing to and editing sportfishing publications, I watched a dramatic rise in public interest in fluke fishing. This huge fluke revival was no accident; it coincided with a notable increase in media coverage of that fishery.

I’d argue that it’s been a notable lack of sea bass coverage, not the inferiority of the species as a sport fish, that has held efforts to a minimum. In addition to fighting well beyond their weight class, sea bass hold a reputation, among those who have regular access to fresh fillets, as quite possibly the best-eating fish in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic waters. For what it’s worth, the black sea bass is the only fish I’ve eaten for five consecutive dinners that still holds a position near the top of my list.

The right real estate

Sea-bassing can be as casual or as serious as the effort you're willing to put into it. Regulartions vary by state, so catching keepers is the main trick.

It would be a bit disingenuous to suggest you’ll find sea bass everywhere. Although they congregate primarily on harder bottom, particularly pronounced structures such as boulders, rock piles, wrecks and rubble-strewn areas, they’re not wildly territorial the way tautog are. You’ll find veritable swarms of 2- to 4-inch "pin" sea bass in all kinds of places. The challenge, the built-in frustration in sea-bassing, is finding a pile of them with enough keepers to justify the incessant rebaiting.

Sometimes you’ll find a small hump on your sounder screen that’s absolutely polluted with bigger fish. Once you’ve set your mind on some sea-bass hunting, especially once you’ve had a big score of heavy ones, you’ll find yourself paying much more attention to your plotter and fishfinder screen anytime you’re cruising about. If you have a decent handle on your electronics’ "lag" at various running speeds, it’s well worth noting any suspicious-looking piece of high ground, particularly if that spire is showing a good-size blob of life tight to the bottom.

Often, sea biscuits will share terrain with scup (porgies), a silver-plated bottom dweller that can pull 10 times its actual size. With both fish, you’ll often discover the need to sample a few piles of life before you find a respectable ratio of box-bound specimens to ultra-tinys.

They’re great sport for the grandkids, whose future as your bass-fishing partner you just might shore up by setting them up on an undulating 6-foot-thick swarm that’s eager to chew just about anything. It’s really that last bit that I find so soothing to the nerves after thousands of hours trying to present meticulously rigged baits or lures to quarry that’s downright persnickety under the best of circumstances. Come autumn, I’m ready to show my baits to fish that actually eat, to sling them across the rail in pairs — one on each hook.

Knacks, tricks

It probably goes without saying, but just as in any other fishery, there’s a strong correlation between the effort you put into it and the quantity and quality of your day’s sea bass yield. I speak to many folks who frown on sea-bassing because all they ever catch are mini-models. When I grill them about their methods, it quickly becomes clear why they never seem to stick anything worth slipping into the box.

First, they start with store-bought rigs sporting the smallest kind of hooks on which, accordingly, they can only hang puny scraps of sea clam or squid.

I prefer wide-gap hooks in sizes from 1 to 2/0 — sometimes larger if we’re sitting on a heap of 2-foot sea biscuits. One hook lays out even with the sinker while the top hook hangs on a dropper loop just far enough above the sinker that it won’t foul in the bottom hook.

I can’t say for sure, but I strongly suspect that a Plain Jane rig with larger hooks and minimal hardware puts fewer flashing deterrents between that hump-headed 6-pounder I’ve sought my entire career and the clam belly/squid combo bait it’s been waiting for. To further boost the odds for larger specimens, small, carefully cut strips of fresh-caught choggie, scup or even bluefish seem to have a way of calling in the bigger individuals in a mixed-size stack of black sea bass. Just realize that these strip baits wash out and lose their luster very quickly, so change such offerings frequently.

This 5-plus-pound monster sea bass was pried off a small wreck in around 60 feet of water south of Newport, R.I.

Squid — the tentacles, in particular — is another sea bass staple. By all means mix up the baits, monitor for bare hooks constantly and note whether the fish you’re catching are taking the top or bottom hook more frequently; subtle tweaks to the baits you soak or the rigs that present them can make a surprising difference in your catch rate.

Lighter conventional outfits armed with 20- to 40-pound braided line and topped off with a 20-foot shot of 50-pound mono — essentially, the types of outfits most fluke specialists favor — will do the job quite nicely.

If you find that your pick of good ones has deteriorated into a nursery, you may need to move a bit and reset your drift. Naturally, if you’ve found the mother lode of Jurassic sea bass, anchoring up may be the ticket to your best day ever. Then again, especially if you have a lot of baits soaking, setting up on the hook can allow the micro-biscuits time — and a steady scent trail — to work themselves into an impenetrable swarm that renders rigs baitless before they touch the seabed. In that case, returning to drift mode, and thus covering more bottom, may help your keeper ratio.

One final bonus: While the guy two slips down is slamming his way home from the Dump in 6- to 8-footers and 30-knot headwinds, you can be topping off your freezer with world-class white fillets, all tucked neatly up in the lee 15 minutes from the marina. Try not to look smug when you run into him in the parking lot.

October 2012 issue